Jason Lalla competes in Para alpine skiing. (Photo: Getty Images)
The myth of the 1972 Miami Dolphins toasting their continuing status as the NFL’s last unbeaten team may persist. Jason Lalla and Monte Meier confirm there is no such custom regarding their otherworldly achievement.
Lalla, Meier and Greg Mannino were the first three American men to sweep the medals in any Paralympic alpine skiing event when they claimed gold, silver and bronze, respectively, in the giant slalom LW2 at the Paralympic Winter Games Nagano 1998.
With their achievement now coming upon its 25th anniversary this month, they remain their sport’s last male trinity from any nation or classification to do this.
“It’s way more of a milestone than we realized at the time,” Meier said.
Not all was lost on the trio in their moment of glory; simply holding three unaccompanied American flags from the podium was a treat.
If anything, that arrangement symbolized a successful mission for the program. Going into Nagano, the U.S. Para alpine team was a runaway leader on the medal table two cycles running.
With 20-plus competitors across its A, B and C squads, the U.S. entered Japan with an ideal blend of experience, hunger and talent.
“That alone gave us the advantage,” said Lalla, who was among the first-time Paralympians in 1998. “But for whatever reason (we had) kind of a special group of athletes as a whole — male and female. There were some phenoms on that team.”
Within the men’s LW2 sector, Lalla joined Daniel Kosick and Matthew Perkins as debutants. Meier hoped to build on his breakout from the Paralympic Winter Games Lillehammer 1994. Mannino was still in his prime, with nine Paralympic medals from three apperacnes, including a bronze and two silvers in the giant slalom.
“Greg was our team favorite,” said Meier.
With first place in the downhill and super-G in Nagano, Mannino justified that label and upped his career collection to six golds and 11 medals overall.
Conversely, an unfinished slalom and 15th-place super-G left Lalla disappointed. But those setbacks sweetened the surprise when he regrouped for the giant slalom and grabbed second place in the first of the event’s two runs.
Lalla remembers trailing only Norway’s Asle Tangvik after that first round, with his two seasoned countrymen right behind him. As the next round’s penultimate skier, he cued a spoken soundtrack in his head with a simple refrain.
“Don’t blow it,” flashed through Lalla’s mind.
Apart from a brief bobble on the last three gates, Lalla thought he kept it together on the deciding run. His first glance at the leaderboard, which was slow to update his standing or display his name at all, spawned a second of self-doubt.
Another look at his teammates convinced him otherwise. Mannino, Meier and others among the U.S. faithful lit up to learn the newbie had claimed first place.
Lalla posted a total time of 2 minutes, 37.07 seconds. Meier barely trailed at 2:37.30. Mannino followed with 2:37.83, edging the Tangvik in fourth place.
With the way those results transpired, Meier was momentarily on pace for his first career gold. But any negative feelings went away instantly after realizing the other podium finishes.
“I wasn’t on top of the podium,” Meier said, “but I was sharing it with my brothers, if you will.”
Lalla added that the exclusive sights and sounds of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were “appropriate for all three of us, not just the guy that won.”
What Meier called the podium’s “upside-down” assignments jolted him in the best way. It was the first time he surpassed Mannino in any competitive race. He had been longtime roommates with Lalla, who remembers him lending a set of skis and teaching the finer points of maintaining one’s equipment.
“Kind of mind-blowing that I could pull that off,” Meier said of besting Mannino. “For Jason to beat me was kind of crazy too.”
Soon enough, the extra gratification Meier had just deferred to his mentee came back to him. The slalom followed the giant slalom on the Nagano slate, and Meier was raring to build on his bronze from four years prior.
Having just obtained his first silver, edging Mannino to do so, he had momentum on his side.
“You don’t know how to win until you win,” Meier said. “Something mentally changes, and winning gets a little easier after that first one.”
Even if the preceding giant slalom was a shared, moral victory for Meier, the conviction counted all the same in the slalom. He translated that to a 1:52.51 finish, more than two full seconds ahead of the runner-up for his first gold.
Lalla, Meier and Mannino each had their own nugget of Nagano gold, combining for four apiece. That constituted the LW2 men’s contribution to another unmatched U.S. haul of 13 gold and 32 total medals.
The trio had uniquely epitomized their program’s depth. In men’s Para alpine skiing, Austria had previously swept the medals in the 1976 men’s alpine combined IV B and again in the men’s slalom 2B in 1980.
No country achieved the feat again until Lalla, Meier and Mannino’s all-American triumph. None have done it since, and the phenomenon is inherently harder to attain these days.
There were 35 men’s alpine ski races in 1998, but only 15 at the Paralympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 due to the narrowing of classifications. In addition, the Paralympics now sanction snowboarding, and Lalla speculates that new option has taken some would-be skiers.
As it happens, the men’s snowboardcross at the Paralympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 witnessed an all-U.S. podium of Evan Strong, Mike Shea and Keith Gabel. But no male skiers have done the same in this century.
In that time, Lalla, Meier and Mannino all competed on home snow at the Paralympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002. Lalla won bronze in the downhill and silver in the giant slalom, while Meier won a slalom silver. Overall, the alpine Americans tied Austria with nine golds and eclipsed everyone with 37 medals.
Lalla and Mannino finished their careers soon after, while Meier competed in two more Paralympics before retiring after 2010.
Parity has been more palpable since then. As such, while the unique trio may have missed five opportunities to break out some bubbly following this century’s tournaments, the odds favor future celebrations.
“We will start doing that now, Meier said. “But no, we didn’t realize we had made history there.”